A Less Common Perspective on Blacks and the Inner City
I got to know Pastor Todd Johnson a little bit for the first time several months ago. We were both guests at the home of mutual friends, Don and Sara Cumbee, where we spent some time together enjoying excellent food and some wonderful Virginia hospitality. He was in town to speak at Riverview Baptist Church, as he has from time to time. Picture an imposing and gifted black preacher from the inner city of Philadelphia with a fiery passion for God and read on.
Todd used to be bigger in size than he is these days. He’s quite happy to have lost significant bulk in the last year, yet he remains a man of impressive magnitude in other ways. You’ll soon understand what I mean. Todd would be preaching at the RBC Homecoming service this Sunday, so we thought it fit to feature Todd this week. I caught up with him by phone on Monday evening for this interview.
"So, my friend," I began, "could you give our readers a little bit of background on how you came to Christ?
"Sure!" He answered. "I came to know the Lord when I was twelve years old. I remember I was listening to the radio. I was trying to turn to a secular station to listen to some music, and I turned down too far and got a Christian broadcast. So, I didn’t touch the dial and I listened to the gentleman who was preaching the Gospel, and at the end of that radio broadcast he said 'if you want to receive the Lord Jesus Christ then pray this prayer.' I knelt beside my bed and prayed that the Lord would come into my heart and be my Savior. That’s how I got saved."
"Do you remember the title of the radio program or who the preacher was?"
"I don’t recall the name of the preacher, but I do remember the station. It was Family Radio and at that time it was 107.9fm in Philadelphia. I was trying to turn to 105.3 but like I said, I turned down too far."
I detected a chuckle in his voice. "So, how long did you listen?" I'm sure there was a detectable smile in my voice as well.
"It was about a 15-minute message. Interestingly enough, I was already a member of a church, but I wasn’t saved. I had gone to church for about a year prior to this. I was singing in the choir and all that, but I’d never asked Christ to come in and save me."
"Interesting! So was the message a salvation message then?"
"Yes it was. Straight up salvation!"
"So, I repeated out loud, "you accidently turn to this station…"
Todd interjected. "Well, I say accidentally, but really it was the grace of God. It wasn’t my intent. I won't lie and say it was my intention to turn to this Gospel station, because it wasn’t. I was trying to turn to a secular station that I would listen on Sunday evenings because they’d play secular music."
"So, up until this point had you ever heard the Gospel clearly presented, or was it just that this time God got your attention?"
"I’d heard the Gospel before that, when I was in church, but I wasn’t really listening. I was a rambunctious kid. I would sit there with my friends in the back of the church and talk and pass notes to one another and eat candy. I really wasn’t very attentive. The difference was that that night I was listening to this radio broadcast and it had my full attention."
"So, let’s wind the clock back a little." I said. "You’re from Philly and in the city no less. Are you a son of the soil?" “Son of the soil." Was that even an American expression? I didn’t know, but Todd clearly understood what I meant.
“Yes!” He answered. “Born and raised right here!”
“And your parents,” I asked, “were they religious at all?”
"They were somewhat religious, I’d say. They were nominal Christians. They were SMO Christians." SMO is preacher-speak for Sunday Morning Only. "They would attend on occasions like Mother’s Day, Christmas, Easter, but I didn’t grow up in a quote-unquote Christian home. It wasn’t until I asked the Lord to come into my life that my parents rededicated their lives. Usually, it’s the other way around - the parents influence the children. But in this particular case, my parents were influenced by my coming to know the Lord, and then they became active participants in the church I’d been attending for almost a year.
"So, what was your youth like? I know you were unsaved and all that: were you like a little angel?" I asked with mirthful scarcasm.
"No, I was not. I received Christ at twelve, and before that I wasn’t what you may call a felon or a demon; just your typical rambunctious child. I got into trouble – not serious trouble – but a fight here and there, not telling the truth, doing stuff that wasn’t right. I wasn’t stealing cars, but we might go to the store and I’d steal a piece of candy. That’s still stealing and those are the things that lead to bigger things."
"So, had you not gotten saved, you might have gone down a darker path." My comment was an invitation for elaboration if not exactly a question.
"I could have." He offered. "I grew up in the inner city here in Philadelphia and I knew people like that in my neighborhood. I knew kids who were committing much more serious crime, so I could have been influenced to get into that kind of thing."
"That intrigues me." I said. "I grew up in the Caribbean, and its nothing like the concrete jungle of the inner city. That’s a pretty tough environment, and you’ve chosen to remain and minister to the people there. So, tell me the story. After you got saved, what happened next?"
"I began to grow as a Christian. My father and mother started going to Bible study and that influenced me to attend as well. One of my father’s favorite preachers was Charles Stanley, and so I’d sit and watch his 'In Touch' program with my parents. That was my first exposure to Biblical teaching. My parents went from being more or less nominal to becoming really dedicated believers. By the age of 14 or 15, my home took on much more of a Christ-like tone: no cursing in the house, no smoking in the house, you can't bring your friends in here if they’re going to be using profanity, you have to be in at a certain time before nightfall, and so forth. So, that structure and that discipline helped me tremendously especially through my high school years."
"So, you had both parents in your home. Your home was not broken." This was another of my invitations for elaboration.
"No! I grew up in a home with a mother and a father and I had three older sisters - I’m the only boy and the youngest in the family. The day that my father died my parents were together. I didn’t grow up in a home with divorced parents or with parents who were estranged or in a single parent home. I didn’t have that experience."
"Is that pretty unusual in your neck of the woods?"
"At that time it was not because I grew up in the 70s, so most of the families in the inner city were intact. Most of my peers grew up in a dual-parent homes. You didn’t start seeing see a lot of the single parent homes until the late 80s and 90s. That's when you started seeing it everywhere, and that was a direct result of some of the policies from the 60s with the welfare and those kinds of programs. Up until the early 70s about 70 percent - or maybe even higher of the homes in the African American community had both parents. That changed with the welfare system and some of the liberal programs that were introduced into the big cities. That started to change in the middle and late sixties. We started seeing more and more single parent homes, and now it is totally reversed. Now, over 70 percent of the homes in the community where I live are single parent homes. They’re very few dual-parent families."
"So, I want to delve into that for a little bit. Why did the New Deal kind of programs have this kind of impact on the black community?"
"From what I can see, the impact was that it drove more and more people toward the social programs because they were offering free stuff: free welfare, healthcare, free food stamps, free this free that. And so you had all this stuff that the government began to offer while that same government did not advocate, nor want, dual-parent homes. A lot of the homes where the father was there were penalized, you know. It’s like 'you can’t have a man in the house if you’re going to be eligible for these food stamps or any cash assistance or assistance programs for women with infants.' The black male was pushed out off that system and you started having more and more homes headed by only black women."
"Wow! So, what you’re saying is that the government provided an incentive for women to have kids outside of stable relationships, then?"
"That’s correct! He emphasized. "That’s exactly correct! That’s what the New Deal did to us."
"So, let me ask you this question, then. Think back, if you would, to what it used to be in the inner city there in Philadelphia in the 70s when you grew up. The New Deal comes in and as you’ve said, broken homes are incentivized. Does that then translate to increased juvenile delinquency and therefore crime?"
"Yes! There’s a direct link between single parent homes and crime. When a father is absent from the home, that kid is more likely to drop out of school, more likely to become a delinquent, more likely to end up in the prison system, and more likely to not be able to have gainful employment."
"So, things are not what it was when you were growing up."
"There’s been a huge spike in crime, a big spike in the lack of respect for authority, and there’s been an adversarial relationship between the community and law enforcement."
"Todd, I’ve got to say something here. What you’re saying to me today is not in harmony with what we hear from a lot of black activists and political figures. You’re diverging from the script. You’re a bit of an anomaly. Do you get push back for saying these things?"
"I speak very openly about these things, Brother James, and I get push back! I’ve been called an Uncle Tom, a sellout, and every name in the book, because of my conservative values. I’m pro-life and very outspoken about it, I preach about being pro-life. I preach that marriage is between one man and one woman. I preach that there are only two genders: male and female. And most of our urban cities, whether its Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, or some of your other big cities like Phoenix or large metropolitan cities like St. Louis or Miami, most of our cities are sanctuary cities, and most of them are run by liberals. So, I am an anomaly. I am a conservative and someone who unashamedly pushes back against the liberal agenda. Most of our black leaders who come out of the inner city, or reside there, are lock, stock and barrel with the liberals. We stand at opposite ends of the fence with those liberal ministers."
"Wow!" I exclaimed.
Todd continued without skipping a beat. "I’ve been very outspoken and I’ve been called out by some in the LGBTQ community. I’ve spoken at City Hall here, I’ve spoken at the state capital at Harrisburg when they wanted to bring gambling and casinos to Philadelphia, I went up to Harrisburg and I spoke against that and I was vilified for that because a lot of people thought that it was a good thing. They figured it would bring jobs and money into the city, but I spoke about the moral decay it would bring. When you have casinos and gambling you have prostitution and despair and hopelessness. Our cities are already full of that, so why would we bring more of it, and the kind of people it would attract? I teamed up and other ministers who were conservative and we pushed back, and they did not bring the casinos to Philadelphia. We won! We have a casino, but they wanted to bring a more."
"So, you don’t mind being a little bit unpopular sometimes?"
"Well, sometimes I mind it because I’m human. Everybody would like to be liked by other people, but I’ve grown accustomed to standing on morals and principles, and that’s why being friends with Shahn Wilburn and ministers like him has provided me partnerships outside of my own city. Partnering with people who are conservative and who believe in the Scriptures as I do is of great help to me. I have a circle that’s larger than just the urban ministers who are overwhelmingly liberal."
"So, you’ve had some civil successes, but how is your message resonating with the people in your community? How is your church doing?"
"My church is in a very impoverished area, so we have small victories, mostly as a result of one on one contact doing personal evangelism, knocking on doors and inviting people to come and hear the Gospel. Unfortunately, we’re not able to do as much as we would like because of a lack of financial resources to do ministry on a larger scale because we are a small congregation. But if we had a few more partners we could have much greater impact."
"Well, I can certainly see why there's a strong relationship between you and Riverview Baptist Church."
"I cherish that! The folks there have been a wonderful encouragement to me, and I hope we'd continue to have that relationship. Every time I come down there I get refueled. It's like going to a pit stop and getting serviced and then getting back on the track so I can race."
"One last question, Todd. I can hear your passion inspite of being, quite clearly, a fish swimming against strong tides. You're doing a tough job in a tough neighborhood. What keeps you going? What is it that drives this passion of yours?"
"What keeps me going, Brother James, is getting up in the morning and when I thank the Lord for my blessings and I begin to see the few people in the neighborhood that I've been able to see come in and hear the Gospel, and get it, and their lives are changed; that's what keeps me going. We don't have great numbers, but it's those one-on-one victories that make it worth it. Every soul that comes to Christ keeps the fire burning."
Todd Johnson is pastor of First Emmanuel Baptist Church, 2438 Ridge Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19121. His email is: ToddJohnsonJ@gmail.com
On February 15th 2020, Pastor Johnson was interviewed on Fox & Friends.
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